I picked up Lavinia at Readercon, a science fiction/fantasy literature convention I attended this past July; this was my first time at Readercon and I wasn't expecting to buy anything at this very popular and informative event, but then again although Ursula K. Le Guin is an established fantasy author (her Earthsea series is practically required reading, or so I'm lead to understand), Lavinia is neither fantasy nor science fiction. Instead, it's about as literary as literary fiction can be- a midrash on Virgil's epic poem The Aeneid, from the perspective of Lavinia, Aeneas's second wife, who is barely mentioned in the poem itself but who here is given a life and a voice of her own.
It's a little jewel of a novel, starring an intelligent young woman of royal lineage and bearing. As the novel opens she is of marriageable age and will soon have to end her days of running through the woods with her best friend Silvia, sister of the man whose death will eventually start the great battle ending in Lavinia's marriage to Aeneas. In the mean time, Lavinia is being offered up as the bride of Turnus, a macho hero-type not-so-secretly in love with Lavinia's mother, Amata. Amata wishes the marriage to keep Turnus close to herself. Lavinia finds Turnus repulsive and bargains with her father, the king Latinus, because she knows her fate is to marry Aeneas.
And here is where Lavinia reveals itself to be not just beautifully crafted literary fiction but metafiction, because Lavinia is aware of her status as a literary creation. She meets with Virgil in the woods, talks to him about what's happening to her, about what will happen to her. She's knows she's part of the poem, and that Virgil has written her life- and that he has left so much out, and she says, even got some of it wrong:
My poet could tell how heads were split and brains spattered armor, how men witha sword in their lungs crawled gasping out their blood and life, how so-and-so killed so-and-so, and so on. He could tell what he had not seen with his mortal eyes, because that was his gift; but I do not have that gift. I can tell only what I was told and what I saw.Le Guin plays with historical accounts of events in the Aeneid as she, for example, contradicts Livy's account of Latinus's death during the war; in her version, he lives on into old age. I'm not enough of a classics scholar to tell you why she does things like this, but she does, and it's interesting, and I'd love to know what other people think. But even putting that aside, I loved Lavinia as gorgeously written, absorbing and fascinating literary fiction. I wish every book were like this; I'm very, very glad to have found it and I'm sure I'll be back for more Le Guin someday soon.